Scott Schoettes, Counsel and HIV Project Director at the pioneering LGBTQ legal group Lambda Legal, resigned late last week from the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA), along with five other council members, in protest of Donald Trump’s polices  ― or lack of polices ― to combat the HIV epidemic.

On Friday, Schoettes lambasted Trump as callous, a president who “simply does not care,” laying out the reasons for the resignations in a piece on Newsweek.com: 

As advocates for people living with HIV, we have dedicated our lives to combating this disease and no longer feel we can do so effectively within the confines of an advisory body to a president who simply does not care. The Trump Administration has no strategy to address the on-going HIV/AIDS epidemic, seeks zero input from experts to formulate HIV policy, and—most concerning—pushes legislation that will harm people living with HIV and halt or reverse important gains made in the fight against this disease. 

PACHA, created in 1995 during the Clinton administration, advises the Secretary of Health & Human Services, who is now Tom Price, the former Georgia GOP congressman with an abominable anti-LGBTQ voting record. In 2013, Price, on a conference call of far-right activists, responded to a question about the “medical health impact” of the “homosexual agenda” by stating that “the consequences of activity that has been seen as outside the norm are real and must be explored completely and in their entirety prior to moving forward with any social legislation that would alter things.”

Price is now spearheading Trump’s and the GOP’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with Trumpcare, which the Congressional Budget Office estimated would cause 23 million people to lose health care within ten years. This would harm hundreds of thousands of people with HIV across the country as well as many more HIV-negative gay and bisexual men and transgender women at risk who need insurance for pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), the drug therapy to prevent HIV infection. And any advances to stem the epidemic could be dramatically halted or reversed.

One of the most ominous signs of Price’s and the Trump administration’s lack of concern about HIV is that the website for the Office of AIDS Policy was taken down shortly after Trump took office and has not been replaced ― another reason cited by the six members of PACHA who resigned.

Some activists are wondering why only six of the 21 members of the council in fact resigned, given all the evidence of this administration’s willful negligence.

“How about the other members of PACHA? Where’s their courage? This should have been a mass protest with ALL members resigning,” wrote prominent, long-time AIDS activist Peter Staley, an early organizer in the groups ACT UP and Treatment Action Group (TAG), which successfully pressured government and drug companies to create life-saving drugs for people with HIV in the ‘90s, on his Facebook page. “It’s very obvious this administration is not going to use PACHA or do ANYTHING around HIV/AIDS. Protest is the ONLY response we have at this point.”

It’s a very important point. Ronald Reagan eventually created a presidential AIDS commission as a fig leaf, using advocates and experts to make it seem like he was doing something when in fact their recommendations were ignored and precious time was lost while little was done and thousands died. Activists and experts, if they don’t have the ear of the administration and the will from officials for sound HIV policy around treatment and prevention, should not be providing cover, and instead should be embarrassing the Trump administration.

This is a critical time in the epidemic, as the epicenter has in many ways shifted from large gay meccas like New York and San Francisco to smaller cities in the conservative Deep South, where HIV continues to disproportionately affect black gay and bisexual men and transgender women (as it does all over the country), and where efforts at treatment and prevention have always terribly lagged. As Linda Villarosa reported  in a piece for the cover of the New York Times Magazine two weeks ago, “America’s Hidden H.I.V. Epidemic,” a stunning 50 percent of black gay and bisexual men will be infected with HIV over their lifetimes: 

Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, using the first comprehensive national estimates of lifetime risk of H.I.V. for several key populations, predicted that if current rates continue, one in two African-American gay and bisexual men will be infected with the virus. That compares with a lifetime risk of one in 99 for all Americans and one in 11 for white gay and bisexual men. To offer more perspective: Swaziland, a tiny African nation, has the world’s highest rate of H.I.V., at 28.8 percent of the population. If gay and bisexual African-American men made up a country, its rate would surpass that of this impoverished African nation — and all other nations.

That’s horrifying ― and unacceptable. With an administration that is literally content to allow people to get sick and die, the only response is to make as much noise as possible, as I’ve noted previously, and point to the callous disregard. Protest takes many forms, and resigning from this administration’s panels and councils ― as expert advisors to the EPA did after the Trump administration dsmissed half of the members of an important science committee  ― sends a powerful message. All of the members of PACHA should follow the brave lead of the six who resigned last week, and speak out loudly about this administration’s brutal policies. 

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